So today I’m at the Poisoned Pen in Phoenix–after what I’m assuming was a fabulous event yesterday at Murder by the Book (I’m writing this in advance like the keen multitasker I am…) Since I’m on tour, I thought I’d repeat a post when I was answering reader questions. This was a great query on structuring mysteries from reader Jessica and originally appeared in August, 2013.
What’s the process you follow when writing a mystery? Do you know the answer (who done it) and work backwards, or do you let the characters lead to you the answer?
For me, writing a mystery is a simple thing from a structural standpoint. I always know who did it and why when I begin. Now, I also make sure that a number of characters could have done it and could have WANTED to do it–this helps with red herrings and plot twists. And more than once I’ve been tempted to change horses midstream and let someone else do the killing. I haven’t done it yet, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I succumb to temptation one of these days…The reason I haven’t done it yet is because it could require a phenomenal amount of rewriting and I do like to work clean.
I was intrigued to read that Agatha Christie often wrote without knowing who the murderer was. When it came time to write the last chapter, she would select the least likely candidate, then make THAT character the murderer. She would go back and rewrite the few things that were necessary to make it all fit–which I think accounts for both her occasional misses and her far more frequent brilliant innovations.